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How the run game plans to get the Bills offense back on track

Devin Singletary (26) Buffalo Bills vs Kansas City Chiefs, October 19, 2020 at Bills Stadium.
  Photo by Bill Wippert
Devin Singletary (26) Buffalo Bills vs Kansas City Chiefs, October 19, 2020 at Bills Stadium. Photo by Bill Wippert

Devin Singletary offered a simple answer to questions about why the Buffalo Bills running game has yet to replicate last season's success through six games in 2020.

"It's not to our standard," the running back said following Monday's 26-17 loss to Kansas City.

What is the standard?

"Making plays," Singletary said. "Making big plays. Creating big plays. We haven't been able to do that yet. We've got to find a way to get that going."

Singletary tied for ninth in the NFL with seven rushes of 20-plus yards as a rookie last season, a number that becomes more impressive when you consider he only had 115 attempts. Six of the eight players ahead of him attempted 200 or more runs.

Those "big plays" were an element of a rushing attack that amassed 2,054 yards in 2019, good for eighth in the league as Buffalo ran the ball on 48 percent of its offensive snaps.

That all changed during the early part of this season, which saw the Bills begin to earn their big gains through the air. Josh Allen ranked second in the NFL with 1,326 passing yards and 21 passes of 20-plus yards during the team's 4-0 start. Naturally, those numbers caught the attention of defenses.

With opponents now leaning toward coverages that limit the Bills' ability through the air, head coach Sean McDermott stressed the importance of taking advantage of those looks on the ground.

"I think we're looking hard at that over the last couple weeks in particular, last three weeks, and it's something we have to be able to do better," McDermott said. "In particular, if they're going to give us what they've been giving us on defense, we've got to be able to run the ball into the Cover 2 shell."

Kansas City's performance on Monday can be seen as an example. The Bills made a concerted effort to prevent Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes from making big plays through the air. In doing so, they knowingly sacrificed defensive attention toward the run.

It nearly worked. The Bills limited the Chiefs to 26 points and were a third-and-11 stop away from having a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. That said, the Chiefs took what was given and generated a season-high 245 rushing yards.

Singletary has faced eight or more defenders in the box on just 1.41 percent of his carries - the lowest mark in the league according to NFL Next Gen Stats - but has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry. Rookie Zack Moss returned from injury Monday and earned 10 yards on five attempts.

McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll continued to emphasize that getting back to their standard on the ground requires a group effort that extends to the coaching staff and the blockers, not just the running backs. Daboll said that Singletary has done the best with what he's been given at times this season.

"He's made a lot of people miss," Daboll said. "It might be behind the line of scrimmage at times, too, where he's getting four or five (yards), but they're a hard four or five. We've got to do a better job with it, and it starts with us."

Added McDermott: "I thought we had some moments where we got him going in the run game and then some moments where we didn't. It's always a collective when you're talking about the run game."

Here are more notes to wrap up Week 6.

Drawing from experience

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier preached the importance of having a steady hand when it comes to righting the ship defensively, pointing to the 2017 Bills as an example. 

That team started 5-2 but experienced three straight weeks of surrendering 34-plus points, culminating in a 54-24 loss to the Chargers in Week 11. They held opponents to 23 or fewer points in five of their remaining six games and made the playoffs.

The lesson, Frazier said, is to stick to what you believe in and focus on improving technique and fundamentals. 

"If you do that and you stick to it, the guys will believe in what you're doing and they'll get better over time if you've got the right people," he said. "But if you knee jerk because you've had a bad game or a couple bad games, you start changing this and changing that. All of a sudden, players are like, 'What are we? Who are we?' And you really have no identity as you try and fix some of those problems.

"So, our message is not going to change. We've been through some rough stretches before. We've come through them and we'll come through this one as well."

Injury updates

McDermott said offensive lineman Cody Ford (knee), cornerback Cam Lewis (wrist), and linebacker Tyrel Dodson (hamstring) are all week-to-week after leaving the game against Kansas City.

Ford was replaced at left guard by Ike Boettiger after sustaining his injury early in the fourth quarter. He had settled into the role alongside Dion Dawkins since a move to the position in Week 3, with Brian Winters assuming Ford's previous spot at right guard.

Lewis, meanwhile, played 10 snaps at the nickel position before leaving the game in the first half. He was replaced by Taron Johnson, who finished with 63 snaps.

High praise for Justin Zimmer

The third-year defensive tackle was a regular part of the rotation along the line Monday after being activated from the practice squad along with Bryan Cox Jr. prior to the game. Zimmer played 32 of 73 defensive snaps (44 percent).

He finished the game with six tackles, including a fourth-quarter stop on third-and-1 in which he helped stifle an outside run by Darrel Williams. Later in the quarter, he tackled running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire for a loss that nearly resulted in a fumble. 

"I thought Justin really stepped up and gave us quite a bit, especially being able to put some pressure on the quarterback and help us some in the run game as well," Frazier said. "So, I thought he really did a good job."

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